There are two stories emerging from the court proceedings underway in South Africa, which began yesterday to determine if Oscar Pistorius should be allowed bail after he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp with a 9 mm pistol on February 14th. The first is about the evidence collected by police on that night, and Pistorius’s explanation for its more damning aspects. The second is the media coverage of the first.
Even before a tabloid’s touch, it all seems rather salacious. A national athletic star shoots his model girlfriend, who has a law degree, on Valentine’s Day. These are enough details to send the editors of church newsletters into a tizzy of anticipation. Throw in a possible love triangle with another national sporting star in South Africa, add the “boxes and boxes” of steroids and testosterone that were found at the scene, and don’t forget about the bloody cricket bat that was supposedly used to bash in the door. Now, it seems we can add a feisty legal duel between prosecution and defence.
Suddenly, memories of the O.J. Simpson trial begin to elicit yawns.
During the first day of Pistorius’s bail hearing, hundreds of journalists attempted to get into the courtroom creating delays, confusion, congested hallways and mini-stampedes. According to those at the Pretoria courtroom, these scenes were repeated on Wednesday despite plans for a second room to be opened up for the assembled media.
#OscarPistorius unseemly scrum outside Court C, one journo faints as we wait to get in
— Alex Crawford (@AlexCrawfordSky) February 20, 2013
#OscarPistorius utter chaos here … Journos still haven’t been allowed in courtroom
— Jacaranda Newsteam (@Jacanews) February 20, 2013
— Mandy Wiener (@MandyWiener) February 20, 2013
An additional courtroom was finally set up for use by the media, amidst protests from members of the public who believed that their exclusion from the overflow room was based on race, and not the purpose of their presence. It was eventually sorted out, but not before further delaying the bail application, and inadvertently leading to a likely repeat of the cramped quarters tomorrow. The chaos is only an appetizer of what’s to come if and when Pistorius goes to actual trial for premeditated murder.
Yesterday, Pistorius’s defence was laid out for the first time. It basically amounts to the runner believing that an intruder had locked himself in the bathroom. Due to his fear and feelings of vulnerability, Pistorius unleashed a barrage of bullets through the bathroom door. Only afterwards did he realize that it was Steenkamp in the bathroom.
The prosecution gave a very different version of events. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel suggested that neighbors had heard the couple arguing before the shooting, and that Steenkamp had locked herself in the bathroom as a means of escaping the confrontation. In reaction, Pistorius got out of bed, put on his prosthetic legs, armed himself, walked to the bathroom door and shot at Steenkamp four times.
That was Tuesday. The majority of Wednesday’s hearing was taken up interviewing investigating officer Hilton Botha, who told the court that he opposes bail for Pistorius based on the seriousness of the crime and the risk of flight that the wealthy runner poses. Botha went on to state that the gun shot wounds that Steenkamp suffered suggest that she wasn’t sitting on the toilet, but rather “hiding” elsewhere in the bathroom. He brought a diagram of the floor plans for the area in which the shooting occurred.
The veteran of the police force also told the court that he found a holster for the weapon used on Steenkamp on the same side of the bed where he also found an overnight bag and slippers, implying that the gun was positioned under where Steenkamp had presumably been sleeping, countering Pistorius’s version of events which offered that he had armed himself without realizing his girlfriend wasn’t in bed. Pistorius also said that it was dark when he fired his weapon, but Botha claimed that a witness who heard gunshots, saw that the lights were on, and heard “a female screaming” followed by more shots several minutes later.
Defence attorney Barry Roux cross-examined Botha, and pushed the investigator to admit that Pistorius claimed he believed a burglar had entered his house on the night in question. This was an issue of contention between the prosecution and defence prior to Botha’s admission. Roux also used the 600 metre distance between the witness’s house and Pistorius’s to discredit her statement to police.
The lawyer went on to claim that the so-called testosterone found at the scene was actually a perfectly legal herbal remedy called Testis Compositum. He further stated, that a postmortem revealing Steenkamp’s bladder to be empty confirms his client’s story that she had visited the bathroom to use the toilet.
Roux accused Botha of negligence in not attempting to confirm anything that his client had told him after the shooting, including his actions after realizing that it was Steenkamp and not an intruder that he had shot. He also explained away the locked door by suggesting that Pistorius had shouted out a prowler was in the house, possibly causing his girlfriend a no uncertain amount of fear. Doubt was also cast Botha’s original claim that shots were fired from a meter and a half away and at an angle to the bathroom door.
Hangdog detective conceding case point by point to a better prepared defence. #oscarpistorius no longer crying
— Daniel Howden (@howden_africa) February 20, 2013
On reexamination, the prosecuting attorney was able to reference Pistorius’s previous arrest for domestic abuse, based on an accusation for which the runner is currently suing a woman.
Like a back-and-forth prize fight, the bail hearing began with the prosecuting attorney Gerrie Nel undermining several parts of Pistorius’s statement from Tuesday through the testimony of investigating officer Hilton Botha. However, in cross-examination, defence lawyer Barry Roux was able to unravel many of Botha’s claims.
The result: We’re not much further along than we were one day ago. While some of Roux’s unravelling of Botha’s testimony was achieved through what we might refer to as “lawyering” there did seem to be a lack of consideration given to certain aspects of Pistorius’s account of what happened. However, it’s hard to point to the police officer’s negligence when the accused party didn’t offer investigators the evidence for which they should have done a better jon searching.
While it’s impossible to judge what a mind is capable of when it’s stricken with fear there are so many elements of Pistorius’s claimed actions that a person of sound mind wouldn’t have done. Whether true or not, it’s going to be difficult to believe that the defendant was genuinely trying to protect himself and his girlfriend from a presumed burglar when he fired multiple shots through a bathroom door without first finding out the location of the woman he claims he was attempting to protect.
Once again, today’s proceedings were reminiscent of a courtroom drama we’d be more familiar with seeing on television. The fact that tensions are this high, and it’s only in the bail application stage, shouldn’t escape anyone.
Day three of the bail application will begin tomorrow morning, and is expected to conclude by the afternoon.